Interview: The Award-Winning Doc Searching for Sugar Man

Anyone who comes out of watching the new documentary Searching for Sugar Man will probably have a lot of questions, but the main one on many minds will likely be, “How on earth did I go through life having never heard of Rodriguez?”

Detroit migrant worker Sixto Rodriguez recorded and released two albums in the early ’70s before settling back into obscurity, not realizing that a copy of his first record “Cold Fact” found its way to South Africa where it became a cult phenomenon, circulated through the musical community and becoming an inspiration for the white Afrikanische musicians protesting Apartheid throughout the ’80s. Rodriguez’s “Cold Fact” would end up selling over 500,000 records in South Africa without the artist realizing it, and decades later, a record store owner and journalist begin a search for the musician rumored to have killed himself on stage in the early ’70s only to play a part in possibly one of the most unexpected comeback stories in years.

Swedish filmmaker Malik Benjelloul has captured Rodriguez’s story perfectly in Searching for Sugar Man – you can read our rare 10/10 review here if you don’t believe us. Named after one of the more distinctive ballads on “Cold Fact,” the movie covers the search and discovery of the singer/songwriter still living in the Detroit area and doing menial labor one would not expect from such a talented musician. Who knows how Rodriguez would have been different if he had found success in the ’70s, as maybe he’d be selling out Madison Square Garden in the same way as more famous peers like Leonard Cohen or Neil Young.

ComingSoon.net sat down with the filmmaker and the subject of his movie last week to talk about bringing this incredible story to the screen with the soft-spoken but verbose Rodriguez being quite a contrast to the younger and more excitable filmmaker.

For those who haven’t seen the movie, Rodriguez started by telling us a little about himself. “I recorded in 1969 and 1970, the ‘Cold Fact’ and ‘Coming from Reality’ albums and then the company, they had success with Bill Withers and then it went under after about three years, so in 1973 I left the music scene. But didn’t leave music, in the sense that I’ve kept up with everything I could read, but I just went back to work. I do demolition, renovation of homes and buildings. What I do is tear out the walls and the ceilings and the floors and prepare it for the carpenters and the electricians and plumbers, and that’s where I’ve been for all that empty space in time.”

“I didn’t find the music first, I found the story,” Benjelloul told us about how he began the process of making the movie. “I was working for Swedish TV and I quit my job and I went with a camera travelling to Africa and South America backpacking, actually looking for stories and doing a few stories. In Capetown, I met Sugar, and he told me the story and it was the best story I ever heard in my life. It was like a fairy tale.”

Rodriguez added to the story. “I also met Sugar in 1996 when he came to Detroit and showed me the CD and explained about this fanbase that I had in South Africa. Malik Benjelloul’s film has brought all these people together, all these people I haven’t met and seen for 35 years and that’s not exaggerated. Malik’s quest to create a film using journalism to ask the hard questions, to show how government can censor information to the people and he shows the mess in the music industry, how omission of information is clearly something that was done.”

“It was so strange that he wasn’t famous here and that no one had heard about (his story),” the filmmaker agreed with our own shock that something so memorable which happened in the late ’90s is only now getting attention due to his movie. “I actually met a South African guy quite recently that had a conversation with an American like a year ago and they talked about something completely different and he said, ‘That would be like imagining the ’70s without the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Rodriguez,’ and this American said ‘Who’s Rodriguez?’ In the places where he was heard, which is basically South Africa and Australia, he was in a pantheon of rock Gods, and here no one heard about him. So you wonder how come no one has done this film since the story happened eight years ago?”

Benjelloul told us a little how he assembled the film to build upon the mystery surrounding Rodriguez. “You need to think about how you’re going to tell the story before you meet them,” he said about getting the subjects to talk about something that happened 12 years earlier but making it feel current. “It’s basically good to talk in the past tense, which is pretty easy, because they’re talking about something that happened in the past tense, so you don’t know if it’s ten years ago or yesterday. There’s the music story about this album no one’s ever heard, then there’s the detective search on how those fans become detectives so it goes from this music biography to a thriller and then it goes into this crescendo which is this resurrection story that he has come back from the dead.”

The filmmaker admitted to being somewhat nervous about finally getting a chance to talk to Rodriguez in person after hearing so much from the fans of his music who set out trying to find him. “There was a real build up because they talked about him almost like a mythological person, and that was really what they said. There was this drifter walking around the streets at night, always dressed in black with a coat on his back but he never played this guitar, and they were like ‘Who is this guy?’ When I met Rodriguez finally, I was very nervous but so eager and I heard his songs and it’s the music that makes him larger than life in a way. The people who make songs are going to forever be remembered and there’s something eternal about that.”

“Malik worked on this film over four years and I met him in ’08, and here’s this Youngblood (a term Rodriguez uses a lot for younger people than himself) and all these Youngbloods on his staff came with cameras so I was kind of reluctant,” Rodriguez said about his first time meeting and being interviewed by Benjelloul. “‘Come on, I don’t want you guys taking pictures of me.’ I was resistant to it but then at the end, I realized they came in February when the snow is very deep and it’s very cold in Detroit and no one is out.”

Over the course of our interview, Rodriguez would often go off on many philosophical and political tangents, making it clear how much politics plays a part in every decision Rodriguez makes, as he describes himself as a “musical political.” Rodriguez even ran for office a number of times, getting on the ballot for mayor and city council of Detroit and state representative of Michigan; he didn’t get very far.

“The genre of the protest song was something I chose to do as a means to express those ideas,” he said, “And I mentioned four examples: Paul Simon’s ‘I Am a Rock,’ Dylan’s ‘Masters of War,’ ‘Ohio’ by Neil Young, ‘Eve of Destruction’ by Barry McGuire as songs where the protests of those periods which we were seeing in the cities at the riots and the Youngbloods resisting the draft, burning the draft cards and moving to Canada. The shootings at Kent State by the orders of the Governor at the students protesting against the war.” Rodriguez feels it was those same feelings of protest that inspired the “Youngbloods” in South Africa to speak up against the government’s Apartheid, also using music and song. According to the stories, the soldiers would exchange cassettes of Rodriguez’s music to get through the tough times.

We asked Rodriguez if he’s worried that showing the movie in Detroit may take away some of the anonymity he’s enjoyed for so many years. “I have to tell you, you have to be able to take care of yourself,” he responded. “I enjoy my privacy and everybody’s got a personal private life but we’re all public people, but I think I like to step away from this so I try to protect that as much as possible. That’s why I’m reluctant to be in this film. I have such an ordinary life, but that’s not the case now, but at the time.”

“I’m a lucky person. Who would have though that this thing has exposed me to a larger, larger audience?” Rodriguez asked before reiterating one of the film’s themes that many a struggling musician would find inspirational. “Discovery is still very possible and globally, we have a bigger market for everyone, every artist. It says a lot about not having to worry about the domestic market anymore. We can take our wares overseas.”

We asked the young director how he could possibly follow up such an amazing film, because the story of Rodriguez seems like one that only comes around once. “The main thing is that the world is pretty big,” he told us optimistically. “If there’s a thing that only happens once in six billion, it happens every day because there are six billion people in the world. It is a remarkable story and I don’t think I will find a story that is similarly. This is a beautiful story, a fairy tale, I never heard of a story like it myself but I think there are other stories that are important to tell as well, that are different. I’m going to try to look for stories more than anything, the kind of story that you want to tell your friends, stories that gives you goose bumps, that’s really the thing. It’s all about the goose bumps.”

Searching for Sugar Man is indeed a movie that gives you goosebumps and you can get them for yourself when it opens in select cities on Friday, July 27. If you can’t get enough of Rodriguez’s music after seeing the movie, the soundtrack featuring songs from both his records as heard in the movie is available now, and Rodriguez has been touring more regularly and will even appear on David Letterman in mid-August.

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